Don’t Racialize the College-Affordability Crisis

The cost of higher education is a problem for everyone, not just minority students.

College affordability has long been an issue in this country. Given that the federal government’s subsidizing of higher education has allowed the cost of college to increase exponentially, many prospective students are concerned.

According to some organizations, this is especially true of students who belong to certain racial or ethnic minorities. A group of four Native American scholarship providers recently published a report entitled “National Study on College Affordability for Indigenous Students,” which explores the effect of the growing cost of higher education on Native Americans. The study includes a survey of over 5,000 Native students, as well as responses gathered from 96 participants via “sharing circles” and individual interviews.

The authors repeatedly bring up the idea that college affordability is especially problematic for indigenous students. Yet many of their findings read exactly as they would if the survey had simply studied the general student population.

College expenses impact all students, not just those from underserved communities.For example, the students surveyed often “spoke of a variety of hidden costs regarding college expenses.” These costs include books, materials, travel, and technology. The authors seem to forget that such expenses impact all students, not just those from underserved communities. Students of all backgrounds enter college every year and come face to face with the difficult truth that everything costs money. Yes, some people are lucky and have an easier path through life. But, generally, all students struggle, not just those belonging to an indigenous population.

The study’s authors also discuss how time is a “precious commodity” for indigenous students, as well as an expense that is “not easily afforded.” They may be surprised to learn that non-indigenous students must also deal with the precious commodity that is time. We all have the same 24 hours in a day and 365 days in a year. Many people, indigenous or not, have responsibilities to their families and communities and must juggle those commitments along with their schooling.

Unsurprisingly, it is not only the study’s authors who have struggled to contextualize their findings. Left-leaning media are similarly confused. In an article in The 19th, an “independent, nonprofit newsroom reporting on gender, politics and policy,” education reporter Nadra Nittle laments that “half of [the survey’s] participants chose their higher education institution based on the cost of attendance.” I expect that Nittle thinks the number should be zero, but, in reality, it should be 100 percent. All of my peers and I took the cost of college attendance into account when making our higher-ed decisions. This is simply good financial practice, not a special burden on Native Americans.

All told, the study’s authors are rightly proud of having assembled “the largest and most up-to-date national dataset on this topic.” They fail to realize, however, that college affordability is an issue for almost all students of all backgrounds. Any solutions should be applied to students of all races, because college affordability is an issue that affects everyone.

Grace Hall is a communications assistant at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal. She works and lives in Georgia.